David Bruce: Anecdotes About Practical Jokes

Minor league umpire Scott Chestnut enjoyed playing practical jokes. Once, he and fellow umpire Harry “Steamboat” Johnson were staying at the old Kimball House in Atlanta, Georgia, where members of the legislature were also staying, and Mr. Chestnut decided to have some fun. He said, “Steamboat, let’s talk fake foreign lingo out loud and see what these boys from down in the country think about it.” Steamboat was willing, and so they jabbered at each other in a made-up language. A crowd gathered around to hear them talk, and a member of the Georgia legislature said to Mr. Chestnut, “Mister, you sure can talk Chinese.”

Comedian Tim Conway’s first wife, Marianne, loved to play bridge, and she insisted on taking him to some parties where everyone talked about bridge. This bored Mr. Conway, so at one party, he went to the bathroom and looked in the medicine chest, where he found some Vaseline and some Q-tips. Wanting to have some fun, he smeared the Vaseline on his face, then he stuck the Q-Tips in the Vaseline, and finally he rejoined the party. Conversation stopped as everyone saw Mr. Conway. “Oh, this,” he said, pointing to his face. “The Q-Tips box exploded.” Shortly afterward, he and his first wife divorced.

Fred Terry, an actor who was married to actress Ellen Terry, once attended a performance of Romeo and Juliet, starring a young actor who was the butt of a practical joke played by the older actors in the play. They told the young actor that his makeup was inadequate, and they convinced him to wear way too makeup on stage, including mascara and rouge — and they even convinced him to wear a pearl earring in one ear. Mr. Terry had been napping during the play, but when he woke up and saw this Romeo, he shouted, “My God, it’s a tart I once slept with in Bury St. Edmunds!”

Norwegian violinist Ole Bull once played a practical joke on the public. After playing a Norwegian melody as an encore piece, he held his bow over the strings of his violin long after the sound had ceased, then as he left the stage, he murmured to a friend, “Did I not play it finely on the public?” Sure enough, many members of the audience thought that Ole Bull was able to hear tones that were inaudible to most other people. And sure enough, some members of the audience thought that they had sensitive enough ears to hear the sound that Ole Bull had, they supposed, heard.

When Texas Ranger relief pitcher Jim Kern noticed a sportswriter really enjoying a paperback book on a plane flight, he took action. He walked past the sportswriter, then suddenly ripped the last 10 pages out of the book. The writer ran after Mr. Kern, who threw the pages to Sparky Lyle, then threw the pages back to Mr. Kern, who ate them. The next day, Mr. Kern enjoyed watching the sportswriter walk into a book store, then attempt to read the final 10 pages of the book without having to buy it.

While Steve Wozniak was attending the University of Colorado at Boulder, he enjoyed playing practical jokes. For example, he built a frequency jammer that looked like an ordinary ink pen. He would go into the television room where a lot of students were watching something exciting like the Kentucky Derby, then at an exciting point in the program — as when the horses were crossing the finish line — he would disrupt the program so that the TV screen went blank.

Among filmmaker John Waters’ many collectables are three two-foot-high dolls with hair that you can style. Mr. Waters has named the dolls “Tiny,” “Kim,” and “Kathy.” Although he takes cares of the dolls, occasionally he would return home and find that some of his friends had used makeup to simulate bruises and black eyes on the dolls so that they looked like they had been abused.

In George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan, the Inquisitor has a 14-minute speech in the trial scene. In a mid-1960s production, the Inquisitor was played by Harold Innocent. At a final run-through of the scene before the play opened, the cast pulled an elaborate practical joke. As Mr. Innocent began his 14-minute speech, the other cast members started drinking tea, knitting, playing cards, playing chess, and doing crosswords.

George Burns was in a Broadway restaurant when a comic by the name of Harry Rose suddenly began to scream, “I know where it is! I know where it is!” He ran outside, then ran several blocks, screaming all the way and attracting a large crowd which followed him. Finally, he stopped by a garbage can, opened the lid, took out his hat, and put it on, saying, “That’s where it was.”

When lieder singer Lotte Lehmann was performing at the Hamburg Municipal Theater early in her career, she worked with two practical jokers: Max Lohfing and Bobby vom Scheidt. In the second act of Heimchen am Herd (The Cricket on the Hearth), they tied her to her seat with knitting yarn, then waited for the moment when she was required to stand up on stage.

Dick Tuck used to play a lot of practical jokes in politics. Back when Richard Nixon was running for President, he hired several pregnant women to troop through the lobby of the hotel where Nixon was staying. The obviously pregnant women all carried signs bearing Mr. Nixon’s campaign slogan: “Nixon’s the one!”

It’s hard to put on Jonathan Winters. Pat Harrington, Jr. used to pretend to be an Italian golf pro with the name Guido Ponzini. While in character, he would go up to unsuspecting people and give them golf tips. Once, he went up to Mr. Winters, who looked him over, said “Irish,” then walked away.

Baseball player Bob Uecker was on an airplane when the intercom mike at the back was left unguarded. Mr. Uecker picked it and said, “This is your captain speaking. Please remain seated and keep your safety belts fastened until the plane has hit the side of the terminal building and come to a stop.”

© 2016, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

David Bruce has written lots of collections of anecdotes, plus other books. Take a look at the list here:


Most of the anecdotes are funny; some are thought provoking.

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